Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 9

Residues and Derivatives “Philosophy shapes a nation’s political system,” insisted Leonard Peikoff. This view assumes that ideas, theories, ideologies—call them what you will—determine the political structure of society. While the view that politics is determined by ideas is clearly an exaggeration (since, among other reasons, it ignores the important effects of unintended consequences), it is undeniable that ideas play a role in the political farce. But what precise part do they play? Clearly, they cannot be the sole or even the primary determinants of the political order. After all, ideas are not powers: they cannot act of their own accord, but require human agency to implement them. So how does this all work? How and to what extent do ideas affect the social and political order?

This is a question that Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto spent years researching and studying. Unlike Rand and her disciples, Pareto did not attempt to reach conclusions on this matter based on feeble rationalizations grounded in over-generalized knowledge of the relevant facts. Instead, after sifting through thousands of actual theories, he came to several startling conclusions. As he explained in The Mind and Society:

Our detailed examination of one theory or another has … led to our perceiving that theories in the concrete may be divided into at least two elements, one of which is much more stable than the other. We say, accordingly, that in concrete theories, which we shall designate c, there are, besides factual data, principal elements (or parts), a substantial element (part), which we shall designate as a, and a contingent element (part), on the whole fairly variable, which we shall designate as b.

The element a directly corresponds to non-logical conduct; it is the expression of certain sentiments. The element b is the manifestation of the need of logic that the human being feels. It also partially corresponds to sentiments, to non-logical conduct, but it clothes them with logical or pseudo-logical reasonings. The element a is the principle existing in the mind of the human being; the element b is the explanation … of that principle, the inference … that he draws from it.

There is, for example, a principle, or if you prefer, a sentiment, in virtue of which certain numbers are deemed worthy of veneration: it is the chief element, a … But the human being is not satisfied with merely associating sentiments of veneration with numbers; he also wants to “explain” how that comes about, to “demonstrate” that in doing what he does he is prompted by force of logic. So the element b enters in, and we get various “explanations,” various “demonstrations,” as to why certain numbers are sacred. There is in the human being a sentiment that restrains him from discarding old beliefs all at once. That is the element a … But he feels called upon to justify, explain, demonstrate his attitude, and an element b enters in, which in one way or another saves the letter of his beliefs while altering them in substance.

The principle element in the situation, the element a, is evidently the one to which the human being is most strongly attached and which he exerts himself to justify. That element therefore is the more important to us in our quest for the social equilibrium.

But the element b, though secondary, also has its effect upon [society]. Sometimes the effect may be so insignificant as to be accounted equivalent to zero—as when the perfection of the number 6 is ascribed to its being the sum of its aliquots. But the effect may also be very considerable, as when the Inquisition burned people guilty of some slip in their theological calculations. [§798–§801]

The element a Pareto calls “residues”; the element b he calls “derivations.” The “residues” are the constant element in beliefs. Pareto, during his years of intensive research, noticed patterns in beliefs and theories that held over time. For example, he noticed that various culture-systems believed that water (and blood for that matter) could be used for “purification” from sins and other transgressions. Christians have “baptism,” pagans have “lustral water,” and many sects indulge in various purification rites involving liquids. It appears that many human beings have a vague feeling that water (or blood) somehow cleanses moral as well as material pollutants. This is the constant element, the underlying residue of purification rites involving liquids. The variable element consists of the theories (such as baptism) used to “explain” or rationalize the residue. These theories are the derivations.

Pareto’s theory of residues and derivations only applies to non-scientific or “extra-empirical” theories: that is, to theories that are non-empirical and/or non-rational.

Now let’s bring this back to the previous "Objectivism and Politics" post where I discussed some reasons Rand gave on behalf of her theory of rights. I identified in that post two types of non-logico-experimental theories (that is, theories not based on experience and experiment): the theological and the metaphysical. All such theories are derivations: they are rationalizations of sentiments, of underlying residues. As Rand’s theory of rights is clearly metaphysical (in Pareto's sense of the word), this would mean it must be classified as a derivation. Indeed, most of Rand’s philosophy is a mere derivation from various sentiments. This very fact explains some of the anomalies that the critic finds in studying Objectivism. It explains, for example, why someone like Rand, who initiates a philosophical movement which makes so much virtuous noise on behalf of logic, “reason,” rationality and reality should offer arguments for her doctrines that are so lacking in any of these elements. It is not its accord with logic or fact that makes Rand’s philosophy seem so brilliant and irrefragible to its exponents, but its accord with their sentiments. Of course, Objectivists aren’t consciously aware of this. They unwittingly mistake this accord of sentiment for an accord of logic and fact. In making this mistake, they are hardly unique, as the history of scholastic and Cartesian philosophy clearly demonstrates. In my next post, we will see how advocates of another famous ethical philosophy unwittingly suffer from the same ideological syndrome.


Unknown said...

Great stuff....

Greg, do you think that Sowell, when writing his "Conflict of Visions", was aware of Pareto's work? I don't find Pareto in his index, but there seem to be some connections between Pareto's theory and Sowell's "visions" and so far, (your exposition of) Pareto seems to be a bit more powerful than Sowell as it is less of an attempt to bifurcate along ideological lines.

Jay said...


I believe there is actually a quote from Pareto somewhere in the introduction of that book.

I also don't think Sowell was overly pushy toward the party line. He seemed content to delineate the constrained and unconstrained visions with maybe an ever-so-slight bias toward constrained. I was actually quite surprised at how fair that book was, and it says something about a man who can be impartial on a book about something as hotly debated as visions of human nature.

(Clearly, outside of that book, he endorses the constrained vision.)

Red Grant said...


Great stuff.... - Abolaji

Indeed, Pareto is one of the few pundits that I so far have found no fault with.

Another is Oswald Spengler.

I got interested in these two after having read so many criticism about them from not only both "right" and "left", but also "center" as well.


I believe there is actually a quote from Pareto somewhere in the introduction of that book. - Jay

What quote are you talking about?

Unknown said...


Thanks. My brain is sleepy - I actually read that quote in the past week and noted that it wasn't from "Mind and Society".

As to whether the book is fair or not, I'll leave to the reader to discern. The tone is fair, no doubt. The choice of Godwin was also a good one in order to make his point that it is has a lot to do with the view of human potential and less to do with the particular conclusions. However, the use of Godwin, who I have not seen anywhere but in that book, repeatedly is out of balance with the myriad examples of far more notable constrained visionaries brought to bear on various topics.

When I spoke of bifurcating along ideological lines, I meant that there were mainly two visions and everything was a hybrid of both. It almost creates a "you're with us or against us or sitting on the fence".

But it just might be that I'm again reading too much into this - you can't be everything to every one.

JayCross said...


"Logic is useful for proof but almost never for making discoveries, A man receives certain impressions; under their influence he states - without being able to say either how or why, and if he attempts to do so he decieves himself - a proposition, which can be verified experimentally...."

The index says that quote comes from Pareto's "Manual of Political Economy."

gregnyquist said...

"Greg, do you think that Sowell, when writing his Conflict of Visions, was aware of Pareto's work?"

I believe Jay has answered that question. Sowell and Pareto basically share the same constrained vision of things, but they emphasize different things. Sowell is more influenced by Hayek, particularly Hayek's view about the limits of reason and knowledge. Those limits are ascribed more to institutional factors (knowledge is localized to individuals, etc.) and the great fact of scarcity (and insatiability of appetites). Pareto emphasizes the non-rational sources of conduct. For most of his career, Hayek, following the classical liberal tradition, believed that most educated people were rational and that there was at least a chance that one could appeal to their reason. The problem, then, with reason, was not human nature or motivational psychology, but the limits of reason itself to solve certain problems (e.g., socialist economic calculation, ascertaining ethical norms, etc.). Late in life, Hayek seems to have adopted a position closer to Pareto's, at least in regards to the motivations of leftists (Sowell entertains similar reservations about the motivations of the left).